At the request of the government of Senegal, Friends of Animals supported a two-year survey to determine the distribution and number of the chimpanzees in the southeastern part of the country. I supervised and assisted with the survey, work which was carried out in the field by Souleye N’diaye, former Director of National Parks for Senegal.
A key area for chimpanzees was found along the Diarha River. Working in conjunction with local residents, we monitored several families of chimpanzees living along the Diarha for a period of twelve months. But the Diarha soon became important for another reason. It is here that a baby chimpanzee was orphaned when his mother died of natural causes. The story of successfully returning this chimpanzee back to his original family was featured in an earlier article called “Tama and the Baby”.During the release Souleye and I relied heavily on the assistance and hospitality of the local residents of a small village called Mbouboura.
During that we discovered that the resident chimpanzee and human populations shared the same spring. At the end of the dry season, with little surface water left, access to this spring would become competitive, and potentially dangerous. And thus, an important recommendation of the two-year study involved addressing competition between species for water and food. Mbouboura was named as a priority site. The Arcus Foundation provided the opportunity to resolve the conflict between the chimpanzees and humans of Mbouboura, thus allowing them to co-exist as good neighbors.
To give ActionLine readers an idea of what our day-to-day work is like, allow me to offer two excerpts from my journal.
Approaching the descent into the dry river bed, I slow down and look to the left for signs of the narrow trail I used when releasing the orphaned chimpanzee. Functioning more on memory than observation, I pull the car up the steep mound and follow the overgrown path leading to Mbouboura, the village closest to the release site. Less than 25 meters in, I realize that the road is no longer passable and we will have to turn back. Looking at the thick vegetation, I wonder if my vehicle might have been the last to pass here -- nearly three years earlier.
Though it is already late, I decide to try the longer road to the village of Madina Diawelli, the parent village of Mbouboura and the residence of the chief who presides over the two satellite villages of Mbouboura and Parayamba. It’s around dusk, and the elders are in the mosque, praying. A tall Peul woman with a baby strapped to her back unrolls a mat for me on the gravel, and offers me a cup of water. Some time later the men emerge from their tiny mosque, and invite us in the compound. I can only see their silhouettes.
I have asked Endega, a close friend from Ethiolo, to accompany me on this trip to assist with an introductory discussion about the well with the villagers of Mbouboura and the chief of Madina Diamwelli. Once the vice president of the rural community of Salemata, Endega is known throughout this district, and his presence is essential during the early stages of discussion and negotiation. And Endega was with me three years earlier when we released the baby chimpanzee and discovered the competition between the villagers and chimpanzees over water.
Having thoroughly briefed him on my proposal to build a well in exchange for freeing the river for the chimpanzees, I now listen to his presentation to the elders, and their responses. Endega translates. The chief is very pleased with the idea of a well but that he would really prefer that the well be built in the parent village -- his village. Speaking for me, Endega explains that the purpose of the well is to reduce the competition between humans and chimpanzees over water. A well in the village of Mbouboura would mean the women no longer need to walk the distance to the river to collect water; the natural water source can assigned to the chimpanzees. So this arrangement would improve the living conditions of both. Such a conflict, adds Endega, does not exist near Madina Diamwelli; neither do chimpanzees. The elders nod.
Two days later, after a similar meeting with the elders of Parayamba, we are on our way to Mbouboura on a new road that none of us knew existed. The road is quite dangerous, worse than I expected, strewn with short stumps and vicious thorn trees that can rip a tire to pieces. It takes more than an hour to cover the ten or twelve kilometers to Mbouboura.
We arrive from the north. I spy the mango tree where we always parked the vehicle before walking the last kilometer to our camp along the river. The elders are waiting for us, in the mosque under the shade of a tree. After extensive greetings we begin our discussion. It is obvious that my proposal has already been discussed at great length, and they have agreed that the well is to be constructed in Mbouboura. Some of the faces I expected to see in the crowd are missing. I learn that Saidou, and elder who often stayed with us at the camp, has passed away. The same is true of Bintou, who regularly came down with her baby to collect water.
Now comprising thirteen families, Mbouboura has roughly 136 residents, a population nearly twice what it was when I was last there. This surge in population will most certainly intensify the competition for water. Everyone assures me that the chimpanzees are still frequent and regular visitors to the river.
As the chore of water collection is primarily that of the women I direct much of my discussion and questions to them. I learn that the closest well is more than 5 kilometers from the village. The closest source of natural water is the Diarha River, roughly 1.5 kilometers from the center of the village. A woman routinely makes a minimum of five trips daily to the river to collect water for her family needs, which include water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sometimes bathing and laundry. To reduce the amount of water carried, laundry and bathing are often done at the river’s edge. With a basin balanced on her head and a baby strapped to her back, each woman makes the three kilometer roundtrip carrying a minimum of 20 liters of water each time, for a daily total of 15 to 18 kilometers. I am reminded that at the end of the dry season water is very scarce and the women scrape and dig the gravel away from the water points in the same way that the chimpanzees are forced to do in order to obtain water. And this is when the major conflicts over water occur between them. And this is exactly why we are here today.
Before leaving I review the terms of our agreement. A well is to be constructed inside the village; the villagers will free the designated zone of the river to the chimpanzees; the villagers will maintain a path from the main road for the truck to bring equipment and materials necessary for the well. It is also agreed that we will begin monitoring the chimpanzees’ presence at the river site once the rains have stopped. Although lacking money and possessions, the villagers generously provide me with a parting gift of a bowl of rice grain. I accept their gift and then kneel with the others for our parting prayers.
As we drive away, my mind is on all the tasks I need to address: Inform the local government officials, locate someone to contract for the well, and purchase and transport the supplies. I have only eight weeks until the rainy season will make work impossible.
My mobile phone rings. The name SALEMATA appears on the small screen. Calling from a telecenter roughly 20 kilometers from Mbouboura, Gaby’s voice is triumphant as he tells me that the well is finished. After numerous difficulties, many relating to transport of materials, Gaby and Lama, the two young Bassari entrepreneurs responsible for the construction of the well, managed to complete their contract only two weeks later than scheduled. And just in time. The rains have already started to descend.
I arrive in Ethiolo the following evening. The rains have already started pushing the heat of April and May aside. It rains all night and I sleep comfortably for the first time in months. I am awakened by the calls of chimpanzees coming from the Patee mountain, the site of our first well.
According to ThianThian, the chief of the village, the chimpanzees sleep near the source every night. They scream and yell in the morning before they come to drink. They do the same every evening. They must be ecstatic to be the sole proprietors of the water source now.
But when I look at my watch, I see it is only 4:30 in the morning. I wonder if a leopard or some other predator has disturbed them.
The next day, we are on the road to Mbouboura after the all-night rain. With six strong passengers, we are able to push the car out of the mud when the four-wheel drive is unable to do the job.
Dark rain clouds hover above as we arrive. Nevertheless, in a moment of great celebration, everyone comes to greet us: elders, children, dogs. The gaiety of the women is visible as they circle the well, filling their multi-colored, plastic containers. It is delightful to see these overworked women so carefree and joyous, if only for a few moments. I notice an innovative washing table, made from the leftover cement, placed close to the well.
The sky begins to darken and the rain clouds loom even closer. I had hoped to come back one more time before the rains made the road impassable, but am not sure that this will be possible. I suggest that we say goodbye now. I express my thanks to all for having accommodated the release of the baby chimpanzee three years earlier, and for agreeing to the well. I explain that we hope to return in the dry season to begin monitoring the chimpanzees and to develop a nature club with their children, the vast majority who are not enrolled in school. I feel my eyes well up with tears as the elders take my hand, thanking me with kind words and gifts of rice and cous. Ashamed to accept their meager rations, I ask if they can keep them for my next visit so we can all share the meal together. They refuse before I even complete my request. And then one by the one the women come forward each with a gift of a pot cover woven from grass, each one a different size and color.
After our last goodbyes, we run through the deluge to the car.
We ride in silence. I am unable to stop thinking of how the majority of the world takes for granted the existence of this most critical resource: water. Then I remember the chimpanzees. The major impact in their lives will take a few months to materialize. After the rains stop and water becomes scarce, I am sure they will appreciate the peace and comfort of knowing that they can access water daily in the safety of their own territory without the intimidating presence of humans.
I would like to express my most sincere thanks to the Arcus Foundation for funding the building of the well in Mbouboura. It has a direct and clearly positive impact on the quality of life for the chimpanzees -- and for the humans, who enjoy clean drinking water for the first time since the village was established.